What's In An Opening Line?

So my publisher, Lulu.com, has been tweeting some great classic opening lines from novels. Whenever I spot this I always wonder if Shakespeare can play. We’ve talked about best opening lines in the past, but going head to head against the novel, I wonder if it’s still a fair fight.
Take the example that caught my eye and made me think of this:

They shoot the white girl first.

That’s from Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and dang if it’s not a pretty powerful opener. I’ve never even heard of that book, and yet in 6 words I’m here thinking “What the? Who are they shooting? Who’s doing the shooting? Why are they shooting?”
I remember some writing advice from Kurt Vonnegut, where he said something along the lines of “Throw away the first 20 pages of your story, you’ve said nothing.” I think this is the kind of line he was talking about. Don’t lead up to it, just drop the reader right into the middle of the action and leave them with a hundred questions about where they are and why things are happening.
With that in mind, is a Shakespearean opening line the same thing? You don’t have a reader, you have an audience. You don’t have a narrator, you have actors. Shakespeare was certainly good at taking time out of joint and sticking 2 hours traffic up on the stage, no doubt about it. The story of Lear’s a great example – we have no history at all of their family life, of what happened to the mother, of whether the king was a good king … and yet we don’t really need any of that, either, to still fully appreciate the story. But it’s not like in the opening scene you find yourself saying “Wait, what? Where’s the mother in all this?”
Which of Shakespeare’s openings is in the same camp? “Two households, both alike in dignity…” is a good line, but it’s more exposition than action. The same with “O for a muse of Fire!” The latter’s perhaps a little better, as you’re hopefully left wondering “Ok, who is this guy? What’s his deal?”
What about the more active openings? The witches have a good one. “When shall we three meet again?” What do you mean, again? We’ve missed your first meeting? Who are you and why are you meeting?
Then again, we’re talking about a meeting. In my initial example there’s a shooting. They’re pretty different on ye olde “heart pumping” scale.
See what I’m getting at? Shakespeare had a point, and the man crafted a killer story to make his point. We all get hooked the minute they begin talking, because we know how good the rest of the story is. But imagine sitting down with no knowledge of the story at all, and hearing a Shakespeare opening. Which one’s going to hook a modern audience best?

11 thoughts on “What's In An Opening Line?

  1. Three possibilities.

    "In sooth I know not why I am so sad…"

    Melancholy, lonely, haunting.

    "If music be the food of love, play on…"

    Lush, luxurious, romantic.

    "Who's there?"

    How perfect that a question opens the greatest existential mystery of all time.

  2. I too was going to vote for "who's there". I have used that in the classroom, asking pupils what you learn from this line. Answers I get include e.g. atmosphere of fear, the unknown, it's dark, or the other person is invisible, military setting, suspicion. It's a good line…

  3. Lot of support for Hamlet's opening line (and, in the past, it's been called quintessential Shakespeare for exactly the reasons cited).

    But does it really address the original question? If you sit someone down clearly with no knowledge of Hamlet whatsoever, and a character comes out and says "Who's there?" is the audience really hooked? Is that the kind that makes you say "What? Who's where? Who's talking? Where are we?"

    What if the first two words of Hamlet were not "Who's there?" but "Behind you!" or even "Die, usurper!" I'm well aware this would drastically change the tone of the play, but that wasn't the question. I'm asking whether lines like that would get the audience into the story faster.

    (Ooo, I just had this vision of Hamlet done as a made-for-tv movie, modern language style, which opens with variation on the "O my offense is rank…" scene, this time where Hamlet actually goes through with it and runs his uncle through. Of course he then promptly wakes up from the dream sequence. :))

  4. Enter "Syllable Man" 🙂

    I know this doesn't technically address your subject, Duane.
    But, technically speaking in another sense, the best attention getters are not necessarily content focused, but audible ones, usually single syllable words. Shakespeare knew this. Close investigation will reveal that plays, acts, and scenes often begin with short but sweet words, and many times a reversed front foot is the result, (or can be acted that way) grabbing the audiences attention straightaway.

    OH for a Muse; NOW is the Winter;etc.

    As far as content goes, I like both Hamlet and MOV for different reasons. Both are asking questions about the truth.

  5. Very good point JM, and I think an exceedingly practical one. I can almost imagine that first syllable shouted over the din of the crowd, to get them to shut up and pay attention.

    I also think it's safe to say that "If music be the food of love" and "In truth I know not why I am so sad" break that rule. Now I'm wondering about when Shakespeare would have used that trick and when he didn't – and why. Lesser with the comedies than the tragedies? Surely the audience (and the acoustics) were basically the same, so the delivery had more to do with the message?

  6. I think "Now is the winter of our discontent" is a pretty amazing opening monolog. You get one of those double-take moments in the first two lines (my inner academic wants me to point out it's called paraprosdokian) thanks to Shakespeare's intentional word order, where you think the sentence is going somewhere and it swerves in a different direction. "The winter of our discontent is NOW" versus "now the winter of our discontent IS made glorious summer…". Both these interpretations can be entertained one after another thanks to the carefully-crafted syntax. Then you get a delicious banquet of sarcasm from Richard, followed by his bitter portrayal of his own deformity, leading up to "and since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair, well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain, and hate the idle pleasures of these days." With the audience hooked, he goes on to confide some of the details of his "inductions dangerous."

    So yeah, I think it's a deservedly famous speech, and a great opening. Not quite as pithy as what you're going for, though, since it's a pretty long monolog.

  7. As with a lot of Shakespeare, trying to apply a hard and fast rule often results in finding out that you can't. He seems not to have liked 'rules' per se:)

    Now, fair Hippolita…AMND
    Cease to persuade,…2Gents
    Never tell me, I take it much unkindly–Othello
    Nay, but this dotage…A&Cleo
    Let Fame, that all hunt…LLL
    Open your Eares: for which of you will stop–IV Hen 2
    (talk about saying "Hey!–listen up")

    and others you already noted.

    No matter the regularity (or not) of the meter, you'll find a preponderance of single beat words strung together, and lots of words like If, Now, When, What, So, etc., at the places I mentioned above, It can set up a sort of solid base from which to 'begin' and also grab attention by directly indicating that there's 'something' to follow.

  8. JM hits on yet another indication of Shakespeare's uncanny ability to combine the artistic and the pragmatic. So many of his most memorable lines are predominantly single-syllable words…and when there are polysyllabic exceptions, the words are simple, easily understood, and well known.

    Remember that one only asks the question "Who's there?" in response to a noise, or an eerie feeling of another's presence. The action of the play has begun well before that line is uttered; the mystery and the suspense begin in a deep, cold silence disturbed by… something.

    The audience, like Bernardo, has heard something or sensed someone in the darkness. Tension is generated — or comedy, perhaps, depending on the interpretation — but both depend on the suspense created by the silence of the time before those words are spoken.

    On another level, the line resonates in so many ways: it bespeaks Bernardo's fear, and Hamlet's uncertainty about his father, but it is also echoed in Polonius's death, Ophelia's off-stage encounter with the apparently mad Hamlet, the ghost's second appearance, and Hamlet's constant introspection.

    It is also the question we ask with Hamlet every time we look into a mirror, or into our souls, or into the heavens.

    In its starkest form it is answered when Hamlet stares at the skull of Yorick and realizes that he is looking not just at Yorick, but at himself, at Caesar, at Alexander, at every single one of us.

    Simple question. So many answers.

  9. Ed: Deep, but no. At least, not an answer to what I'm talking about. I've repeated a couple of times that if somebody sits down to the play with no knowledge of it, is this a good opening line? You're bringing centuries of understanding to the play as a whole and declaring that line a great opener to what you know is to come. Which is fine, but not what I'm getting at. Even the bit about "it starts with a noise" – maybe. Shakespeare didn't write in a stage direction that says "A noise." So whatever a director gives us is their own choice, not Shakespeare's. So, in essence, Hamlet opens up on an existential question. And we wonder why people call Hamlet hard to understand.

    Interestingly, in contrast to JM's point this one does not start on a strong syllable – the emphasis would seem to be on "there" rather than "who". Just saying.

  10. Duane, I know this isn't, as I said before, exactly to the point you're stressing initially. I strayed into a more technical area.
    But, just to be clear (and I'll shut up about it) it's not always a strong syllable that makes a difference in mood. It can also be the simplicity of measured cadence (as Ed refers to) infused artistically and technically, hidden in the line so well, that it's not at all evident unless you go searching for it, thus giving it the label it deserves when found, and therefore armed with the knowledge to give it the best chance to do what it can do *as* an opener rather than throwing it away because in the modern sense it may not seem like a 'good one' at all.
    It's better to know it's there. That way it has a better chance of producing the desired affect so obviously intended by Shakespeare.

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